Across the country, discussion continues on the presence of animals in VA medical centers. Some facilities are forming committees to explore ways to address the massive influx of animals in environments already challenged by anxiety over MRSA and the "swine" flu. At the San Diego VA Medical Center, an Animal Management Team is exploring a number of ways to best respond, beginning with educating the public on the difference among service animals, therapy animals, and pets. As this education process happens, the health, security, and welfare of all individuals who might come in direct or indirect contact with an animal remain a priority in the Animal Management Plan development process.
Many of these animals are service dogs. Defining what a service animal does can be quite complex given the range of functions it may provide for someone with a disability. One often under-appreciated aspect is the practical value a service animal has in the eyes of its owner. Service animals perform a variety of functions, including but not limited to guiding the blind, pulling wheelchairs, picking up dropped items, or opening doors. Put simply, service animals provide more than just these critically supportive functions; they often open doors to independence, literally and figuratively
In addition to these practical functions, an immeasurable bond is created between human and animal. Experts suggest this bond can sometimes grow much stronger than that between a person and an ordinary pet. Thus, a person who, for example, relies on a service dog often sees that animal as a lifeline, as is the case during falls and evacuation emergencies. Amazingly, some service dogs can even be trained to detect the onset of seizures or act as a grounding force for individuals with other "invisible" disabilities.
The pairing and relationship development between a disabled person and service animal is a process, not an event. When the initial relationship begins, many perceive the animal as nothing more than a specially-skilled pet. However, as time passes it becomes apparent that, without the dog, that person's independence is likely to be dramatically affected. For that mason, it does not take long for this relationship to become firmly cemented.
People who encounter someone with a service animal should bear in mind they are dealing with two living beings that function as an interdependent unit at work. As the number grows of people who have a service animal or know someone who does, it becomes increasingly important to educate all on the role of service animals in the lives of people with disabilities and society as a whole.
Editor's note: For more information about service dogs and human/canine teams, see "Constant Companions" (November 2009).
Vice President & Hospital Liaison